Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Sitting with resentment

Resentment can bring together anger, envy, jealousy, self-importance, self righteousness, greed and a whole host of other unattractive feelings. So, why would you want to spend time with it? The short answer is anything felt and suppressed only causes trouble. However, resentment is a complicated response and feeling it doesn’t always make you the bad guy. Taking time to sit with the feeling, to meditate on it, explore it and understand it can be very revealing. Having done a fair bit of this kind of sitting, these are the things I have learned.

It is reasonable to resent what is unfair. Be that abuses of power, or people taking more than their fair share, or any other kind of unbalance you might encounter. If that seems to be the shape of it, dig deep, because sometimes we’re mapping a sense of unfairness on to what is really envy. When we see the success of others, we may assume it was unfair. Women who are accused of sleeping their way to the top are an obvious example of this manifesting. If you can see real evidence for unfairness, then your resentment calls for justice. It’s important at this stage to remember that justice and revenge are not the same things.

It’s more comfortable to see the situation as unfair than it is to recognise our own envy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with envy as such. If we look at what’s going on for someone else and wish we had the same or better – that seems human and natural to me. It’s what we then do with it that is the question. Seething bitterness over what they have and we don’t is profoundly unhealthy. The desire to take what we haven’t earned is not usually a good thing – although there is also the desire to redistribute what others have not earned, Robin Hood style. If envy is a spur to action, if it shows us where we want to be and sets us on a path – why not? Recognising envy and allowing it to motivate us to positive action is no bad thing.

Resentment can be born of projection. It can mean we take the worst of what we think, the worst of our impulses and attribute it to the other. We think they are getting away with the things we want to get away with but can’t. Or think we couldn’t. The real challenge here is to grapple with your resentment until you can see your own inclinations in it. What you do from there is up to you, but denying our ‘shadow’ selves never helps. Know it, own it, deal with it.

It’s easier to put something down after you’ve looked at it properly. A feeling that has been met and explored is far more easily let go of. It is better to know ourselves, to know that we aren’t saintly, and to accept our less than angelic moments. To be human is to be flawed, and when we make more room for our own shortcomings rather than trying to deny them, we are likely to be better adapted to dealing with other people’s too. Sometimes, it’s entirely reasonable to feel those ‘negative’ emotions. Sometimes they are the only appropriate response in the circumstances. Sometimes they are a necessary spur to changing ourselves.


A bit worried or suffering anxiety?

A bit back I wrote about the differences between depression and sadness and the problems that arise when people think that their brushes with melancholy mean they know what depression is. You can read that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/depressed-or-melancholy/

The issues for anxiety are similar in that an experience of fear is not the same as anxiety as a condition. Humans have fight and flight reflexes, but in the anxious person, the urge to flight can be overwhelming and irresistible. A panic attack is a really physical experience. How it impacts may depend on the severity of the situation for the person experiencing it. It may cause numbness and temporary inability to move or react. It may accelerate the heart rate in ways that are also alarming. Breathing can be affected – loss of control of breath as the body hyperventilates is also distressing. Chest pains as though you were having a heart attack. Gut pains leading to voiding of the bowels. A panic attack is a body issue, and all the person experiencing it can do is try to get it under control. It can also impact on a person’s ability to go out, deal with other people, hold down a job – any aspect of life may be made more difficult by it.

You can help someone who is experiencing a panic attack by helping them to feel safe, asking what they need. Little things – a glass of water, a seat, help to move away from the trigger… these are good. Telling the panicking person to get over it, pull themselves together, stop making a fuss it really isn’t that big a deal… will make it worse. If you have an option on doing those things, don’t assume everyone else does.

This brings me round to triggering – a word too often used to indicate mild discomfort. Specifically a word used to indicate mild discomfort by people who don’t have issues and wish to ridicule and denigrate those who do. Triggers do not mean you are some kind of pathetic. Triggers are a consequence of trauma and the experience of the trigger – typically something that in the sufferer’s mind connects to the trauma – take the sufferer back to the experience of their trauma in an immediate, uncontrollable way. The shell shocked soldier will have flashbacks in response to sudden loud noises. Victims of rape and other physical abuse, victims of torture and anyone coming out of a war zone, and people coming out of long term domestic abuse are the kinds of people who have triggers. You can’t see by looking and many of us are not self announcing because one of the worst things to do with trauma is revisit the memories of it.

This is why trigger warnings are so useful, because they allow a person chance to brace themselves, and a reminder you were prepared for is much easier to handle than one that comes unexpectedly, and you get the choice of whether you’re feeling up to it right now. Trigger warnings are not about protecting wimps from reality as is so often claimed. Trigger warnings are about protecting victims of child abuse, torture, rape and violence from reminders that may send their minds back into living those experiences again. It tends to require details – which is why I’ve not put trigger warnings on this blog, for example. If I was talking in detail about specific experience, I would start with a trigger warning.

Untreated anxiety has the habit of infecting other aspects of your life – the process is called conditioning, we’ve known about it for more than a hundred years. If a bell rings when you feed a dog, the sound of the bell ringing will eventually be enough to make the dog salivate. If there was a soundtrack to your abuse, or certain key phrases were signs of danger, if there was a behaviour pattern that went ahead of violence in your home, then things that look like it will start to feel dangerous too. It won’t make sense to anyone else, it’s not the sort of thing anyone expects to get trigger warnings about, but it still needs taking seriously.

If someone tells you that what you do is triggering them, they are in an awful place and trust you enough to ask you to do differently. That’s a lot of trust. They could have just run away. The gift of helping someone feel that bit safer is a huge one, and helps with recovering from the trauma. Failure to take seriously the apparently irrational triggers can contribute to making things worse. Triggers are so easy to dismiss if you aren’t the one experiencing them.


Depressed or melancholy?

There are people who will tell you that depressed people are just making a fuss, ought to pull themselves together. Take a nice walk, listen to some music, stop feeling sorry for yourself. These are people who haven’t experienced depression for themselves. What makes it difficult is that they may have experienced melancholy, and believe that the depressed person is feeling as they did when that happened to them.

Now, when it comes to a touch of gloom, a down day, a bit of melancholy, this is sound advice. Get outside, go for a coffee with a friend. Listen to your favourite album. Play with a cat. Do something you know will lift your mood, and your mood will lift. So long as you don’t wallow about in it, you can indeed get shot of it, because it’s just a mood and will pass.

From the outside, there are no obvious signs that a depressed person is experiencing something different from that. However, depression means serious underlying unresolved issues. This may be current life issues – stress, lack of rest etc, it can be a side effect of physical illness and ongoing pain, it can be unprocessed trauma, it may be a chemistry issue. Small changes won’t shift it. In some cases, a degree of relief can be found in doing small things, and for some of us, doing small uplifting things over weeks, or perhaps months can really help turn things around – this was certainly true for me. Getting a change in your environment that allows you more good stuff can make a difference. But, a single shot of uplift won’t change things. In the not being uplifted by the supposed cure, the depressed person can slide further in, feeling ever more powerless and useless.

If the depressed person is subjected to a barrage of being told they should be able to fix this with an array of superficial magic cures, they are not going to be less depressed. They may get worse. Tell a really depressed person to pull themselves together, stop making a fuss, stop wallowing, let go of the self pity – and you will fuel the feelings of despair, uselessness and worthlessness that very likely underpin their condition. Anyone really keen to pull a depressed person out – don’t tell them what to do, get in there and see what you can gently do that will enable them to do it. Ask what would help. Offer support. Don’t assume you know best. Many people have no hope of healing until the thing causing the problem changes.

And, for people who are depressed, I know how hard it is not to internalise other people’s suggestions as criticism. There was a meme a bit back that basically said trees are medicine and pills are rubbish – it’s a case in point because it creates the impression that depressed people just aren’t trying hard enough or making the right choices. And so you feel worse than before. If you can hang on to the thought that anyone pedalling this stuff is talking from a place of total ignorance, it helps. The really problematic ones are the folk who will tell you they know about depression, when all they really know is about sadness and fleeting gloom. They mistake their molehill for your mountain. But, when they are confident and you feel like shit, it is all too easy to be persuaded.

The bottom line is, if what someone else says isn’t useful, that doesn’t make them right and you useless. It may well mean they have no bloody idea. It is possible to prevent them from stealing away more of your self esteem if you can bear this in mind.

The bottom line for people on the other side of this is that if you think you have a simple solution for depression, then you are wrong. You may have an effective intervention for passing gloom, but anything that can be fixed with a walk in the park or a kitten photo was not depression in the first place and you need to reassess what you think depression is and be alert to the risk of blaming the sufferer.

I haven’t had a really bad bout in more than a year now. I’ve had rough patches, but I think I’m surfacing. There were no quick fixes.


Playing with my labels

Back when I was at university, many moons ago, I minored in psychology. This meant numerous chances to play with psychological tests. Introvert-extrovert, thinking-emotional, masculine-feminine, and so forth. I noticed a thing – that the tests did not quite work for me. A large percentage of the questions I wanted to answer ‘both’. Go to a party or read a book? I could place myself in the middle of any scale, or simultaneously out towards both ends. My second discovery following on from this was that for most measures, nothing existed to name me. Just for gender, where I found and relished the term ‘psychologically androgynous’.

Part of what this indicates is that sliding scales assuming personality traits can be lined up in certain ways are reductive and flawed. I wonder how many people conform to ideas like you can be either a thinking person or a feeling person just because those ready-made identities are there to be conformed to.

One of the things I never got to study in psychology is the question of why we are so keen to label and identify ourselves. Why do we want our thoughts and behaviour defined along an axis? What do we get out of comparing our scores with other people’s? There’s no real application for this stuff, although it clearly forms the basis for all the dodgy ‘what kind of X are you?’ questionnaires in magazines. There’s plenty of research out there to show that who we are and what we do is situation specific anyway. The person we are at work is not the person we are when hanging out with friends.

Who is the real me? Is the persona I choose to adopt any less a manifestation of me than an off the cuff reaction? Surely, any choice I make is who I am. My artifice is as much part of my lived truth as my moments of raw emotional authenticity. I want to go to the party and read the book. When it comes to gender stereotypes, I pack like a man, shop like a man, take a problem solving approach like a man. I look like a woman, in line with current gender fashions. I’ve no inclination to emulate the social models for male appearance, or feminine behaviour patterns. I think about how I feel, I use reason and gut feelings together for problem solving and decision making. I’m not an either/or sort of person, I want to explore all the things available to me.


When you can’t do self care

You watch someone work, and work and burnout, and try to keep going. You try to help them by encouraging them to take better care of themselves, and it doesn’t get through – which is frustrating and off-putting. What do you do? I write this as both someone who has struggled with self-care and someone who has wanted to help others who clearly have the same sorts of issues. There are reasons some people can’t do it and respond badly to being told they need to.

Depression, which tends to cause feelings of low or no self worth, and any other self esteem issues make it hard for a person to feel like looking after themselves is worth doing. The idea of putting yourself first can cause huge feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. Thus a recoiling in horror at the suggestion of taking a day off.

For people living in abusive situations, or who have a history of being abused, it can feel, or actually be unsafe to take care of yourself. Even taking your own needs into account may provoke hostility, verbal abuse, criticism, mockery, being told you are selfish, lazy, useless, not taking proper care of others. You might have someone in your life who will take any excuse to work themselves into a state of anger, and from the anger may come physical violence. What happens if you are exposed to anything like this is you can take on the idea that it is your selfish lazy fault that has caused the perfectly reasonable anger and violence. So you learn to ignore your needs because it is safer to pretend you don’t have any.

For anyone with abuse issues, encouragement to self care can be a panic trigger. It’s really hard to deal with from the outside because it makes no sense to anyone who has not had their right to be a person stripped from them.

The best way to help, is to go in with logic. Here are some tried and tested thought forms.

Burnout is inefficient, if I rest now, I won’t burn out.

I will produce a better quality of work if I am less tired. My concentration will be better.

I am investing in being able to work sustainably and being able to meet more of my commitments.

It’s like putting fuel in the tank so you have something to run on.

A person who is able to stop, draw breath, rest and take care of themselves – even if they think they’re only doing it so as to work better – will slowly improve their self esteem. Once you get off the hamster wheel and aren’t running all the time it becomes easier to think rationally. Exhausted people are not rational, generally.

A person who can’t do self care because they’re in too dangerous a situation needs to realise this and get out. Telling them will not always help much. Support them in feeling worthwhile. Don’t tell them what they should do – that just undermines their already battered self esteem. Tell them that you care about them and want to see them well and thriving, and perhaps they’ll tell you why they are afraid of self-care. Always remember that for an abuse victim, the most dangerous time is the time when they try to leave – this is the time a person is most likely to be subjected to violence or even killed. It is always worth getting advice and support from the police for a safe exit.


Stories about love

‘Romance’ as a genre and how that genre impacts on us culturally has bothered me for a while. I say this not as some kind of literary snob – I’ve written plenty of romance and erotica over the years. I’ve read rather a lot of it as well.

It bothers me also that romance is denigrated as a genre, because it’s largely written by, and for women. Love is one of the most important things in our lives, it often defines who we will spend our days with, it impacts on us economically. Whether we breed or not, may have a lot to do with who we’re with. So does whether or not we’re persecuted. Who we are allowed to love has always been an intensely political question and there’s a great deal of power tied up in who is allowed to shag whom. Love is a subject to take seriously. Unfortunately if you want to publish in this genre you have to play by the rules and so can only tell certain kinds of story.

The romance genre is that it is all about beginnings. That rush of first love, and the establishment of a relationship. In a more traditional book, the conclusion is the marriage proposal. Life, for women, stops at marriage, in romances. There are of course always exceptions, but on the whole the romance story involves a young woman and a man. She will be beautiful and virtuous and worthy of love. He may well not be in the least bit virtuous or worthy. If there is an age difference, he will be older. If there’s a wealth difference or any other power difference, it will likely be in his favour.

Romance as a genre means straight romance. If the romance is LGBTQ then the odds are it will be specifically labelled as such. Back when I was writing them, I had to be clear about the pairing, the assumption being that a reader would not want to be surprised by the direction romance took. that bothered me a lot.  If the romance is polyamorous it won’t be labelled as romance usually. Fit, healthy, slim people (often with lifestyles that don’t suggest this is likely) fall in love. Yes, I know there’s You Before Me, but it’s unusual to have a romance with someone in a wheelchair, and he does have a lot of money…

Poverty (that isn’t overcome Cinderella-style), disability, and anything not hetro-normative is unusual in romance.

While all of that troubles me a lot, what troubles me most of all though is the obsession with the new relationship. We don’t have much in the way of stories about long term love. Romeo and Juliet are the model for romance – a couple of kids who get into each other’s pants and die shortly thereafter. Because otherwise it might get old, and stale. As though love cannot endure at that intensity. As if the only way for there to be long term love requires us to accept it settling down into some tamer, more domesticated form. That’s the story our culture tells itself, and I think that story is a long way short of being the whole truth.


Walking new paths through your mind

Humans are creatures of habit, and much of what we do, we can do on a kind of autopilot. The neural pathways we walk in our brains are the easiest to keep visiting, and so we can become locked into patterns of thinking and behaving. When reality conspires to affirm a way of thinking or being, we can be really persuaded by the truth of it. So, a few verifications that the socks are indeed lucky can make us sock-dependant!

The trouble is that what comes to us from outside can train us into habits of thinking and acting that don’t reflect who we are, and aren’t functional either. The child who is rewarded with attention for having a tantrum, or refusing to eat or sleep, is the obvious case in point here. We can learn early on that certain things get us our own way and it can become part of the regular routine. The technical term is conditioning, and the psychology of it is out there to be read if its a topic of interest.

Seeing a pattern of thought or behaviour in this way isn’t easy, because for us, these things seem normal. But, if something isn’t working, feels wrong and gets shitty results, it’s a good time to dig in and look for those underlying stories and pathways that we have in our heads.

Trying to unpick old lessons is hard. The easiest way to deal with conditioning, is to get a new layer of conditioning over the top of it. That often calls for outside help.

There was a period when my anxiety around post was massive. It wasn’t irrational – terrifying and life altering things were turning up in the post at unbearable frequency. So hearing the post became fearful. Then seeing a post person or van became fearful, because they were bringing the things… then the post office, and anything posty in any context started getting to me. A red postbox in the street could give me a queasy moment. Dysfunctional to say the least, and horrible to live with.

Other the last few years, there’s been no post drama, and a lot of good post. Review books, gifts from friends, letters I wanted… and now when I hear the letter box go, most days I’m fine. Some days I wonder if it’s the book I’m waiting for. Occasionally there’s a flicker of fear. I’ve built new associations with post. I offer this as an example because it’s not too emotive, and most of my other conditioning issues are.

People in abusive situations are trained to accept the abuse as normal – especially pernicious with child abuse where no other points of reference may exist for the victim. People suffering trauma have often internalised what happened as something to expect. Recovery means embedding new stories, creating new paths through the mind. To build something better, it helps a lot to be in supportive spaces with people who can give you a different sort of reality to play in.


Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.


Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.


Anything can be a teacher

Anything can be a teacher. Sometimes the lessons are all about moving away and holding boundaries, and those lessons can be urgent and unsettling. At the time of experiencing them, there’s not a lot of motivation for gratitude – which I think is reasonable and healthy. There’s a time and place for gratitude, and it isn’t during the period of being kicked in the shins!

Last year brought lessons. At the time, those lessons hurt, but I’ve noticed this year that I have, to a significant degree, made peace with it all. I’ve had self esteem issues all my life, I’m motivated to please others (unrepentantly so) and thin skinned. It means if someone decides to pick on me, I can get hurt. In my past there are people who knocked me down repeatedly and I struggled to get up, and it took a lot of time to recover from each round…

Last summer I faced character assassination, and attacks on self and life that could have broken me. I have no doubt that the intention was to do me as much damage as possible. But, the process was so full-on that I didn’t go along with it. Unusually for me, something kicked off inside me, refusing to accept the assessments of who I am, refusing to accept that it was ok for the people involved to be doing and saying what they did. Rather than internalise it as my failing, I took a long hard look at a whole bunch of people and decided that the problems were theirs and not mine, that I didn’t need them in my life, and that I didn’t have to be broken by them.

In the months since then, I’ve not regretted anything that I’ve done, and I’ve not regretted the loss of people who clearly considered me a nasty misuse of space. I feel lighter, freer, and happier. I’ve learned to hold my edges when attacked. I’ve come to feel a certain amount of gratitude for the experience that pushed me into being more willing to stick up for myself and no longer willing to internalise other people’s shit. It’s been a good learning experience, for me.

I know if I’d tried to respond with gratitude for the lessons at the time, it could easily have locked me into a place of hurt and reinforced the wrong things. Gratitude has its time and place, and sometimes distance is important. I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and while I don’t forgive the attempt to clip my wings, I am glad that I saw it fast enough to fly from the would-be clippers and not go back. With the right timing, gratitude can be a helpful part of letting go and moving on, leaving a person feeling empowered and enabled by the experience. Even if the experience itself was entirely shit.